April 25, 2005
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter's stories
lead to new book, Translation Nation
By Jennifer McNulty
A top reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Hector Tobar
takes pride in telling the stories of people who are often overlooked
by the media.
Hector Tobar, author of Translation
Nation, is now Buenos Aires bureau chief for the Los
Angeles Times. Photo:
One of his best days on the job was actually a night he spent
under the stars on the war-torn Iraq-Syria border.
Tobar was sent to Baghdad in June 2003 to cover the early days
of the war. In the wake of a failed U.S. attack targeting Saddam
Hussein, Tobar traveled to the remote Iraqi border village that
had been hit.
He arrived late in the afternoon. The only American in the
village, Tobar was immediately surrounded by a dozen Bedouin
children, who looked at him like he was from outer space.
Tobar realized there wasnt time to do his reporting and
get back to Baghdad by curfew. He stayed to get the villagers
The hamlet was an outpost for Bedouin smugglers, the most
successful of whom lived in spacious concrete houses. Tobar
talked with residents, who spoke of a mother and infant who
were killed in the attack and five homes that had been destroyed.
Then, in a surreal twist, Tobar was invited into the home of
a local sheik, where he sat with several men and watched a televised
press conference of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld discussing
the attack that had rocked the village hours earlier.
Tobar filed his story by satellite phone. That night, he slept
under the stars beside his translator and driver.
I felt lucky to be a journalist that night, says
Tobar. It was worth the little bit of fear I felt. Looking
up at Scorpio, I had never seen its star so bright. I felt connected
to this really distant, strange, exotic place, and I had told
their story. It ran under the headline, Tiny Bedouin
Village Is Caught in Path of the Hunt for Hussein.
Tobar, now Buenos Aires bureau chief for the Los Angeles
Times, has had an outstanding career, sharing the 1992 Pulitzer
Prize for the papers coverage of the Los Angeles riots.
Talking to people and telling storiesits an
honorable living, he says.
The son of Guatemalan immigrants, Tobar was raised in southern
California. My mother was 19 and pregnant, and my father
had saved up enough money for a television or to move to the
United States or Europe. He decided the television could wait,
and they moved to Los Angeles.
Tobars father began working in hotels and delivering
the newspaper his son would later write for. Tobar attended
public schools and got good grades, but it wasnt until
college that his eagerness to learn was reciprocated. In
college, I met people who really challenged me, he says.
At UCSC, Tobar took and audited classes in everything from
biology to McCarthyism. He learned about national liberation
struggles from literature professor Roberto Crespi in the Oakes
College core course and suddenly got the bug to learn
this history of Latin America that I had not been taught,
Crespi, who died in 1992, was one of the most dogmatic
people Ive ever met. He believed in the creative process,
and he demanded it from his students, says Tobar. Sociology
professor Jim OConnor had a passion for social change.
I felt lucky to be in his presence and to listen to his lectures.
I remember looking at the world differently.
Ultimately, says Tobar, UCSC is what made him a writer. After
graduating, he started out in 1988 at a community newspaper
in San Francisco. He earned $9/hour and felt he was in heaven
because he was being paid to write. Tobar moved a year later
to the Times, where he participated in the papers
Minority Editorial Training Program, was hired, and spent four
years as a metro reporter. That first incarnation
of his career, as Tobar describes it, ended unhappily. He felt
like the papers token Latino, and he was emotionally
drained from his work on the police beat.
One of the things that made me a good reporter was that
I had an excess of empathy, he says. When I was
in my mid-20s, I had a very gentle soul. I would weep with people,
and after a while, they would not be able to stop talking about
their son or daughter who had died.
Tobar left the paper to explore fiction writing, He earned
an M.F.A. in creative writing from UC Irvine, and published
his first book, the novel The Tattooed Soldier. The experience
helped him find his inner poet, and he returned
to the Times in 1996. Today, he is considered one of
the papers best stylists, a distinction that
prompts a self-conscious laugh.
The first time I was a journalist, I was cautious, having
learned that it was forgivable to be late, boring, or to write
flat prose, but that if you messed up the facts, you wouldnt
be a journalist very long, explains Tobar. Fiction
let my imagination loose.
Shortly after returning to the paper, Tobar felt the familiar
chafing of racial politics. He was the only Latino reporter
on the daily metro staff. Im not really big on race
or ethnicity, but Ive never felt so brown in all my life,
He told his editor he was going to quit but was urged to stay
on. Weeks later, the Times announced its Latino
Initiative, and Tobar got one of the best jobs in
the world. As Latino national affairs correspondent, and
then as a roving national correspondent, Tobar had license to
go anywhere in the country. And he did.
I had so many story ideasstory ideas are really
whats carried me in journalism.
Those stories inspired his new book, Translation Nation:
Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-speaking United
States, which arrives in stores this week. The book weaves
together Tobars wanderings through what he calls the new
Latin Republic of the United States, beginning with
his parents in Los Angeles and ending in Baghdad, where he does
a favor for a Dominican American military policeman from Brooklyn.
Tobar feels privileged to give voice to so many
people hes encountered in his travels, and he is grateful
to his wife, UCSC alumna Virginia Espino (psychology, 1987),
who makes his work possible. The two met at UCSC but didnt
connect until years later in Los Angeles. The couple have three
childrenDante, 8; Diego, 5; and Luna, 5 months.
My wife is extremely understanding, says Tobar,
who finished his book by rising early and writing before the
kids woke up. Its the ambition. My ambition is such
that its a disease. Its an obsession.
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